Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Good Day for Democracy: Government Loses Gurkha Vote

Today's big political news has just broken - that the government has been defeated in the vote for the first of two Lib Dem motions, which make up our opposition day debate. The motion called for an equal right of residence to be offered to all Gurkhas, rather than the unfair cut-off for those whose service ended pre-1997 which the government was doing all it could to preserve. I should firstly say a big congratulations to Chris Huhne, who opened the debate powerfully, and fended off a number of pathetically twatty interventions from the Labour benches with ease.

What is amazing about this is not the vote itself, so much as the fact that the government allowed itself to lose. Governments really don't like to lose votes. Even on harmless things like David Heath's Private Members' Bill on Fuel Poverty, they would rather defeat good ideas, and then implement them later, perhaps in watered down form, as part of a wider piece of legislation. It completely undermines the way parliament and our democracy is supposed to work, but there you are.

So it was that before the debate, on the Daily Politics PMQs coverage, Nick Robinson sagely told us that it wasn't a government defeat we should be watching for, but how much the government had to give away in order to keep its backbenchers on side. Look out, he advised us, for little slips of paper being passed to the minister towards the end of the debate if the whips don't think they can win the vote as things stand, thus prompting further concessions.

As it happens, though, the Labour party is in such a state of complete incompetence/powerlessness that its whips clearly weren't able to guage support sufficiently accurately. Perhaps they simply don't have enough leverage over backbenchers who all expect to be out of a job soon anyway. In any case, the government, in not announcing a U-turn or something, has allowed itself to be humiliated. Not only that, but on an issue that has attracted an awful lot of public anger; Andrew Neil and Anita Anand said on today's Daily Politics that they'd never seen such a large and unanimous email response on a subject before.

The other notable thing about this is the photo opportunity that it produced outside the House of Commons, where protesters were making their own opinions on the subject clear this afternoon. There, sandwiching Joanna Lumley, admittedly, were Nick Clegg and David Cameron, side by side. Some will inevitably read a lot, probably too much, into the body language of the two, and whether they looked to be getting on well. Personally, I think they were both genuinely happy to see the typical workings of parliament, where the government simply stifles the ability of MPs to act as the voice of the nation on such straightforward issues as this, subverted for once.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

How To Really Screw Up A Child

Today's Guardian reports that...
The plans to make personal, social and health education (PSHE) compulsory from the age of five, published yesterday, include a clause allowing schools to apply their "values" to the lessons and another allowing parents to opt their children out on religious grounds.

It means that all state secondaries in England - including faith schools - will for the first time have to teach a core curriculum about sex and contraception in the context of teenagers' relationships, but teachers in religious schools will also be free to tell them that sex outside marriage, homosexuality or using contraception are wrong. Sexual health campaigners warned that such an approach could confuse teenagers, but Catholic schools welcomed the move.
Let's think about this for a second. At the kind of age we're talking about here (secondary school), some may be starting to feel a bit confused about their own sexuality, and questioning whether they might be gay (or, indeed, already feeling pretty certain about it). I don't know about you, but I can't think of many things that you can more easily do to them at that point to really fuck them up, potentially for years into the future, than to tell them, as part of the lesson that is supposed to be telling them how to deal with these developments in a mature way, that there is something wrong with them, that to act on their thoughts and feelings would be "sinful".

If their parents have sent them to a faith school, then they might not be likely to find much sympathy at home. What they are taught and what their friends think about these issues is enormously important. In that situation, what these plans are likely to produce is a whole load of unhappy and repressed young people.

Of course, we all know this; society has increasingly recognised the importance of being supportive of people finding their true sexuality, and the damage that some parents can do by rejecting their children in this situation.

But of course, religion is special. Belief in the sky-fairy entitles you to abuse your children without reproach; indeed, the government will go out of its way to allow you to fucking well INSTITUTIONALISE this abuse. (Am I succesfully expressing how angry this makes me?...)

Amazingly enough, as Costigan remarked this morning, the Daily Mail has managed to take precisely the opposite tack. This is what passes for an argument on the other side of this debate:

Simon Calvert, of the Christian Institute, said that 'pressing the virtues of homosexuality' could lead to more experimentation, which could be 'harmful' to children.

He said: 'What we don't want to see is vulnerable young people being exploited by outside groups which want to normalise homosexuality.

'If this guidance purports to force faith schools to teach things which go against their faith then it is profoundly illiberal and must be resisted at all costs.'
It reminds me of Al Franken's line about the US religious right's argument that gay marriage "undermines" traditional marriage, as if he was going to be walking down the street one day, see a gay couple who'd just got married, and think "Well, gee, that does look pretty good, I shall leave my wife immediately."

I mean, come on, "pressing the virtues of homosexuality"? As in, "not telling people that being gay means they're sinners"? How many of our "vulnerable young people" are these "outside groups" (read: filthy homos seeking more recruits) really going to turn gay by simply not filling their heads with bigotry handed down by the sky-fairy?

Oh, and a pre-emptive warning to any nice religious types who want me to make more effort to separate them from "the Christian Institute": go and give Simon Calvert a fucking great slap from me, and I'll consider it.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Charlie Brooker on G20 Protests and the Media

Charlie Brooker's Newswipe has been a bit up and down so far, but Charlie excelled himself last night with his review of the G20 summit. You can see it on the iPlayer here. In particular, his review of the TV news coverage of the protests, which begins at 14 mins 36 secs, is fantastic, and provides a nice overview of the relationship between the protests, the media, and the possibility (and later actuality) of violence occuring at the protests.

An honourable mention also to Ben Goldacre's piece on the MMR non-story, which begins at 11:34.

In fact, just watch the whole thing, it's ace.

NB. Probably not work-safe, thanks to Mr. Goldacre's dirty mouth, and Ant and Dec's senseless killing of a dog.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

It's Not About Ian Tomlinson

Lib Dem Voice has picked up a Q&A with Chris Huhne in the Indy, in which he answers the following question (in bold) with the following response:

The police officer who assaulted Ian Tomlinson didn't do anything worse than many other police officers filmed that day. Shouldn't they be investigated too?

The officer who lashed out at Ian Tomlinson is not typical. But any constable who betrays the public's trust to use force responsibly should be disciplined and, if appropriate, charged. It is lamentably unfair to the vast majority of self-controlled officers if a thug tars the whole force.

Commenters on LDV have expressed dismay at this, and I have to agree. Whilst the death of Ian Tomlinson is tragic, and should be properly investigated, the police should not be allowed to get away with a diversionary "bad apple" manouvre here. There was a lot of rather over-zealous policing going on for the G20 protests on April 1st, and questions should be asked not simply of officers caught overstepping the mark when tensions ran high, but also of the senior officers who determined that kettling anyone who turned up was a sensible or productive tactic.

Since April 1st, discussion of police methods has been steadily displaced by discussion of Ian Tomlinson. His death is significant, but it should not be allowed to become a proxy for the wider issues. Whether Tomlinson was or was not a protestor, or being antagonistic to the police, or drunk, are pertinent questions to the investigation into his death, but they have absolutely no bearing on the wider questions of whether the climate camp should have been charged in the way it was to clear it, or whether kettling should be the default tactic used on people exercising their right to protest.

The New Atheism - The Next Step

Julian Baggini has writted a quite interesting article on this subject over on CiF. I mostly agree with it, but it has a bit of a problem. Here's a quick quote from it:
What it revealed is the negative perception people have of the godless hordes, and the New Atheism must share responsibility for creating its own caricature. You can't publish and lionise books and TV series with titles like The God Delusion, God is Not Great and The Root of All Evil? and then complain when people think you are anti-religious zealots.

This can't be dismissed as "mere perception". Appearances count, which is why those able to present a more agreeable face have come to dominate the moderate middle ground, even if their arguments are often vapid and shallow.

The problem is this: Baggini has two messages, which aren't really compatible. They are as follows:

1. The New Atheists are perceived as being too forthright and certain. Look at me, in contrast. See how I open my article with the words "When I threw off my Christianity, I did not throw out my Bible, I just learned to read it properly. Intelligent atheism rejects what is false in religion, but should retain an interest in what is true about it." Lets all get better at presenting a "more agreeable", less "contemptuous" face to the world, like moderate religious people and agnostics do.

2. The New Atheists have been too narrow in selecting their targets. They have drawn attention to some fundamentalists with nasty views, but there are still people wandering around with views that are equally bonkers, wouldn't stand up to five minutes solid questioning, and need to be challenged, because they're currently getting away with holding views that are frankly even more ill-thought-through than the religious loonies. The "fluffy brigade" are "flattering the woolly-minded by telling them vagueness is a virtue, not a vice."

The first message urges us to stop pissing people off by seeming so sure of ourselves. The second one basically assumes that we're right, and that it's not just the fundies who need arguing with, but the woolly minded ones who think "God is love" is a terribly profound statement, not a load of fatuous guff. I'd agree with the second one, but I don't see how we're going to change anything of the perception of New Atheism by extending criticism to the people in the middle who are currently busy slapping themselves heartily on the back for being so chuffing moderate.

Of course, Baggini calls it a "conversation", not criticism or an argument, but presumably the aim of the exercise is to cure people of their "woolly minded"ness, so I don't quite know how that's going to work. Presumably, these people are all so thick that during these "conversations" they won't notice that we think we're right if we just talk to them very, very softly.

It's worth a try, I suppose.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Just Been to the Bank of England Protest

I'm not in work today, so I thought I'd go and have a look at what's going on down at the Bank of England today. Arriving at Liverpool Street slightly late, we caught up with the march shortly before it reached Threadneedle Street. Generally, the march is comprised of the usual suspects, people carrying banners saying things like "CONSUMERS SUCK" and "Climate Change is Bad", seemingly with no sense of irony whatsoever. I don't know if the climate change branch of the march was particularly full of eejits - when we went round the other side, there were some rather more sensible banners around.

I don't know exactly how many of the other people there were there to protest themselves, and how many just to have a look at the action. Probably for quite a few it's a bit of both. But in any case, I don't think this counts as the Summer of Rage that has been predicted. Not just yet, anyway. It's not exactly a million people marching against the Iraq war, is it?

The other thing I might as well comment on is the police presence. It's massive. The streets leading into the protest are all crammed with police vans, many of them full of reserves of police awaiting the command to come piling in. Generally, whilst we were there the policing was pretty restrained, which has been borne out by what I've seen on the TV since I got back. What I would say, though, is that I'm not sure the police strategy of almost walling us in was a good idea. I think what they may well have achieved is to make a lot of people present feel a whole lot more involved and polarised than they intended to. Hanging around at the back of the crowd, so I could slip away if things got unpleasant, it was a bit unnerving to see a wall of police behind us.

There was a certain sense of "well, you've come down here, don't complain to us if we treat you like the troublemakers at the front". I realise it's difficult to know how to police this kind of event, where the people in attendance are by no means homogenous, but I can't help but feel that there must be a better way than this. Ultimately, lines are confrontational. If you start forming great big lines before you've even had a confrontation, it kind of sends a signal.

I'm now watching a small group of protesters smashing up the windows of a branch of RBS, and the reporter there commenting that the police aren't really moving in, because doing so might involve turning a larger group of people angry, although how many of them might actually engage the police is unpredictable. Exactly. The risk you run in treating a crowd as a single entity is to reduce everyone to the lowest level of behaviour present.